Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book piracy: a flourishing trade

Some more thoughts about books.

An interesting thing happened in the world of letters six years ago,  in October 2004, to be precise.  The Latin American literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, was launched on October 20, 2004.  Even before the launch, pirated versions of the book had come onto the market.  However, when the book officially came out, the pirates realized that the wily Marquez had outwitted them all: he had changed the ending of the story in the official edition!  Now, the Colombian police swung into action: they seized thousands of copies of the bootleg versions on sale on the streets of Colombia.

But it has always been the pirates' world; Garcia's pre-emptive strategy was an isolated case of an author stealing a march on pirates.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives an interesting account of book piracy in North America in the nineteenth century.  Publishers waiting at the dockside for new British books could produce an American edition almost within hours, as they did in 1823 with Sir Walter Scott's Peveril of the Peak.  And England paid America back in the same coin: in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin came out in the US, 1,500,000 pirated copies rapidly appeared in England, some editions selling for six pence.

Book piracy has now assumed alarming proportions.  According to an estimate by the Inter-American Publishers' Group, 50 billion book pages are illegally reprinted every year.  In the forefront of book piracy are the Asian and Latin American countries.  In India, the Rs 7000-crore publishing industry incurs a loss of Rs 400 crore on account of book piracy.  You can imagine how notorious China is for print piracy from the fact that, in just three months (August-October 2002), 10.24 million pirated books were sized in the country.

In China, there is at least a government crackdown against book piracy.  But in Bangladesh, where there is no such action, book piracy is a flourishing trade.  A few years ago, Dr U Satyanarayana, a friend of mine who was a professor of biochemistry at Siddhartha Medical College, Vijayawada, wrote a book on biochemistry which was quite popular in India and abroad.  The book with illustrations in four colours was originally priced Rs 440, but pirated black-and-white editions of the book began to sell for Rs 250 in Bangladesh.  Then the publisher did something very sensible: he reduced the price of the original to Rs 250.  If you can't beat the pirates, join them!

Publishers of textbooks must learn a lesson from this.  One reason why students buy cheaper pirated editions of books on specialized subjects such as medicine and engineering is because the original editions are prohibitively expensive.  But it would be simplistic to think that by reducing prices alone, book piracy could be eliminated.

How is the situation in my own town, Vijayawada?  On a Sunday, I visited about fifteen second-hand books shops, and was unimpressed by the small-scale bootlegging that was going on there.  On offer were awful-looking Sidney Sheldons (Rs 50 a copy) and Jeffrey Archers (Rs 75) and plenty of stolen volumes from college/public libraries.

Why is book piracy not a roaring business in places like Vijayawada?  The answer is quite simple: piracy can flourish only where the reading habit flourishes.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely, the ghoulish shadows of piracy are overcasting the publishers as well as the readers. In 2008, Arvind Adiga's debut novel 'The White Tiger' was originally priced USD 17 (INR 780) (Hardcover) and USD 10 (INR 460) (Paperback).

    After three days, I walked by a second-hand books shop. All of a sudden, my eye caught the sight of a copy of 'The White Tiger'. Amused at the sight, I stepped into the shop to have a sharp look at the book. I took the book into my hands and started to flip through the pages. That's all - my jaw sagged in consternation! I thought of screaming, 'Eek, it is a pirated one', but could not.

    The point here is, the pirated copy of the internationally acclaimed book (is it?) is out onto the market within three days' time after its release. Moreover, one could own a pirated copy by just paying off INR 150.

    In fact, the pirated copies (DVDs, books, etc.) in India reach large masses rather than the original works. Probably, hereafter, authors could release a few pirated copies by themselves to make the work reach the wider audience.